Tuesday, 7 April 2015
Three party leaders looking into the abyss
The main emotion you can see in UK party leaders' eyes right now is fear, for all the parties are heading for defeat.
Labour is saddled with an unpopular leader that is the number one reason voters give on the doorstep for refusing to back Labour's early return to power (though his numbers have started to get a little better). That party's still widely blamed - with some justification - for the economic crash of 2007-2008, though again here recently its position has somewhat improved.
The Liberal Democrats are tarred with the tag of 'traitor' and 'liar' for entering into coalition with a right-wing partner, and tearing up all those pledges about abolishing university tuition fees that they made with such aplomb in 2010.
So far, so obvious. You didn't need us to tell you all that, did you? Except that the fear, and the defeat, are everywhere. The United Kingdom Independence Party thought that they held a winning ticket, riding a wave of discontent about mass immigration and the European Union. Their polling numbers have been gently falling all year. The Green Party enjoyed a 'surge' when it looked as if they would be excluded from the party leaders' debates. Then their leader blew it, caving in so spectacularly that no voter could ignore it.
The sense of universal defeat is indeed endemic, but it's especially evident in the Conservative camp. That's strange, when you think about it, because they are on course to the largest party after the May 7th General Election. But everything they do shows what they really think of the electoral landscape. The Prime Minister announces that he will not lead his party into a third election, betraying his need to hold off his rivals with the constant proximity of a leadership election. The Government launch a ridiculous comic-opera coup against the Speaker of the House of Commons, in case they need more control over the Commons' chair in a balanced Parliament. The Prime Minister puts in a robotic, dial-down-the line performance in the main televised leaders' debate, looking for all the world as if his heart's not in it any more. The Conservatives have started hammering the Scottish National Party, all the better to fire up the SNP in Scotland and to drive increasingly Scotophobic English voters away from Labour south of the border. Are the Conservatives any longer a unionist party? Not really: such are their dire circumstances that, as usual, they seem to be willing to do anything, and say anything, to cling onto power. Even tear up their supposedly 'prized' unionism.
The smell of decomposition, and of desperation, is in the air. When the electoral smoke clears, Labour will have been defeated, perhaps awfully routed, in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats will have lost half their seats. The Conservatives will have gone backwards. UKIP will not have 'broken through'. The Greens will be lucky to add one seat to their present single MP. Only the SNP, riding the wave of that remarkable insurgent 'Yes' movement from last year's referendum, will be able to smile - and even they might feel a bit of a come-down if they 'only' win (say) 40 seats, so high are expectations at the moment.
It's actually revealing to look at this election as a 'wisdom of crowds' problem. Think about it. What do the voters really, really think and want, as a whole? Close your eyes. How would they go about achieving it? We can furnish some examples: in 1997 the electorate really, really wanted shot of a Conservative administration they thought had become old, stale, corrupt and self-serving. So they voted for just about anyone to get rid of them - reducing the Conservatives to a rump the size of which they had never even dared fear in modern British politics. In 2001 they wanted Tony Blair to finish the job he seemed to have successfully started - yoking economic capability and economic growth to a sense of social conscience. In 2005 voters wanted to punish Mr Blair for the Iraq War, plus any number of off-beam policy failures (think: not reorganising Railtrack in time to avert disaster). But they didn't find the alternative - a renewed period of Conservative rule under Michael Howard - very appealing either. So they chose to give Mr Blair another chance, while drastically reducing his majority. In 2010? Well, voters liked the look of Mr Cameron, but still distrusted his party. So they gave him a limited pass to the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster, provided he checked in with those nice Liberal Democrats every day. And so on - and on.
What do voters think now? Well, basically that politicians have had their day. That they're a self-appointed elite of power-hungry manipulators who, if not exactly in it for themselves, certainly don't know or care how normal people live. What do they want to do? Make sure that all the leaders suffer.
From this it's only one small stepping-stone away from our conclusion: the voters will impose a very balanced, almost deadlocked Parliament in which no one bloc, let alone any one party, can enjoy the perquisites of office. To punish and to bind 'the elites' they think don't listen to them any more. In which they'll have to creep forward, day-by-day and vote-by-vote, without any certainty or rest. Given the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, they may well have to live within that unpleasant prison for five long years. Serves them right, most voters will think - until they want immediate and decisive action in a crisis, and find it acutely lacking.
That's why all the party leaders, with the sole exception of the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon, are looking into the abyss right now.